STORM FRONT
By SF Writer
Copyright 1998 - 2009 StormNation.com, All rights reserved.

SF34: The Price of Restitution


* * * * * * *

 

I still remember that dream. That terrible dream. I didn't understand it at the time but now it's all starting to make sense. That was the last dream I had before my mother died. Since then I don't sleep the same. I don't like to sleep. I don't like to dream. And even though I can't imagine anything worse than Mom leaving us, I can't help remembering the end of that dream. Our family portrait shattered. Me standing alone. No Lucas. No Dade. No anyone. Just me.

I've been awake for the last two hours. Standing here in Lucas' lounge. Staring blankly out the window towards the dark, desolate street outside. I can't sleep. I'm beyond tired.

This isn't my house. This isn't my home. I try to make it feel like home but standing here, it just doesn't fit. I rub my arms in an attempt to shield my bare skin from a chill that exists only in my mind. It feels so cold. My run in with Dade shook me more than I care to admit. Forced me to confront what is really bothering me. The reason why he thinks I've given up. I'm still reeling from discovering that he isn't my real brother. But that's not why he thinks I've given up.

When Mom died, part of my spirit died with her. She was so much a part of my life. All I wanted to do was make her proud. Take care of her. I wanted her to be happy. To have everything she wanted. I still can't believe that I'll never get that chance again. Before anyone else. Lucas, Dade, everyone. She came before anyone else. All I wanted to do was make my mom happy. She was the center of my universe. Everything in my life revolved around her. She meant everything to me.

And when Dad left, it was me who stepped up to take his place as the man of the house. I was just a kid but I wanted to do everything I could to let her know she wasn't alone. That she'd be ok. That we'd all look after each other. And we did. We looked after each other and I did my best to make sure she was ok. Supported her. Tried to make her proud. And it was all for shit. Because she's dead. It was a waste of time. It was all a waste of time. She gave her whole life to us right up until the second she died. And what did she get? Shit. She got shit. And I got the biggest part of my soul ripped away from me. That's why Dade thinks I've given up. Who knows, maybe he's right.

We spend our whole lives working towards something. Trying to better ourselves. The lives of those around us. So much effort just to have it all taken away. That was Mom. Fuck whoever took her away from me. Fate, coincidence, bad luck. Whatever. She shouldn't have gone out like that. Makes me wonder what the whole point of it all is. What's the point in doing anything? You're going to die in the end anyway.

I talk to her at her grave as if she can hear me. But it's only just starting to sink in that maybe ... just maybe ... she can't. Maybe I'm just talking to myself. She can't hear. She's not there. She's not here. She's nowhere. She's just gone. Trying to compensate for my loss by talking to a mound of dirt. The cold reality of it all is starting to sink in. The emptiness. It hurts to realize. And as I do, my eyes follow the moonlight through the windows and onto the carpet. There they stay. Cast down.

I'm living here with Lucas but the truth is I've never felt so lonely in my life. I miss my Mom more than I can say. I miss my room. I miss my home. I miss my life. I miss the way things used to be between Dade and I. I miss Mike and Sarah and they haven't even left yet. I miss the innocence in Marcel's eyes. I fear after last night that Marcel won't be far behind Mike and Sarah in leaving Merlow. I fear even more that the storms have not yet passed over us. I feel more and more each day since Mom's death that somehow ... I belong less and less to what used to be my life. I can't explain it but the ominous feeling of it consumes me. I feel myself withdrawing more and more each day. And once again, my eyes follow the moonlight through the windows and onto the carpet. There they stay. Cast down. Lost.

I wish I could feel anger at it all but the truth is, I don't. I don't really feel anything. I just feel empty. I look forward to and dread Mike and Sarah's wedding. Because I know on that day they'll leave Merlow and who knows if they'll ever come back. I miss both of them so much already. I just want to be a big kid and sleep with Mike and have him look after me the way he used to. I want to see Sarah smile without fear of the future in her eyes.

And Still Mom. Still her I miss so much my bones hurt. My soul aches. She'd make everything better. She'd take care of me. She'd take care of all of us. But she's not here anymore. And it's actually taken this long for it to really start sinking in.

My eyes begin to water just thinking about her. My eyes follow the moonlight through the windows and onto the carpet. There they stay. Cast down. Lost. Empty.

 

* * * * * *

 

"Dade, Sweetheart. Where's your brother?" June asked as she poured her son a glass of OJ.

"I dunno, Mom." Dade responded as he wolfed down his bowl of cocoa pops. "I don't know where my brother is."

"Maybe you should go and find him."

"Sure, Mom. Don't worry, I'll find him. What time will you be home?"

"I'm not sure, Son. But I'll see you later." June said as she kissed Dade's cheek. "I love you, Son. Don't forget that."

She smiled lovingly at Dade as she headed for the door. Dade returned the gesture and waved at her before she closed the door behind her. The door slammed shut with an echo that reverberated through Dade with an eerie stillness. As if somehow, this wasn't right.

"Mom! Wait for me! I wanna come too!" Storm yelled, throwing his bag over his shoulder as he ran down the stairs. "Wait for me, Mom! I wanna come with you!"

"Wait, Storm!" Dade yelled as he rushed out after his brother. "I thought you were staying with me?"

Dade stepped out the front door and realized he wasn't standing outside his house. There was no morning sun. Only a black, empty sky. He could feel a chill run through his body as he looked around anxiously for his mother and brother.

He stood in the middle of a road. An empty road that was still wet from rain. He couldn't see anything in either direction. Just an endless road. Then as if out of nowhere, a car appeared. His mother's car. Crumpled and smashed against a power pole. A heap of mangled metal and shattered glass.

"Mom!" Dade yelled as he rushed to the car.

He was met with the horrifying sight of his mother's dead body in the driver's seat. Dade tried as hard as he could to open the door but it wouldn't budge. He smashed his fists on the window and jumped back in horror as she opened her eyes suddenly, turning them to slowly meet his.

"Why, Dade?" She mouthed silently.

"I'm so sorry, Mom." Dade groaned, unable to pull his eyes from her face. "I'm sorry I killed you. Please forgive me."

"Why?"

Dade's eyes went wide with horror as the face changed. It wasn't his mother anymore. The face was still dead but it wasn't her. It was Storm.

"AAHHHH!!"

Dade woke with a start. His entire body shook and ran with a cold sweat. He heaved for every breath he took. Tears streamed down his face as he began sobbing silently to himself. He held his head in his hands as his body ran cold with a chill. These were the nightmares that consumed him of late. Nightmares that were filled with guilt and grief. Guilt for maybe upsetting his mother enough that her concentration lapsed, causing her accident and ultimately her death. Grief because of her death. Only now he wasn't just having nightmares about his mother. Now his brother was in them. His mind tried to process the meaning. Hoping that it was just some manifestation of his guilt towards his brother and not something more sinister.

"I'm sorry, Storm." Dade cried to himself as he struggled aimlessly to lull himself back to sleep. "I'm so sorry."

 

* * * * * *

 

"Hey, Mike. What's up?" Daniel Sr. asked with a smile as Mike joined him at the breakfast table.

"I wanted to wait before I talked to you about this and I'm not sure if Mom said anything, but before she died she'd already started everything going to legally adopt me. I know it doesn't really matter whether she did or not because of how old I am but there was really one big reason I wanted it to be official. Since Sarah and I are getting married soon, I wanted to ask you if..."

"Of course, Mike." Daniel Sr. said with a smile as he put his hand on Mike's shoulder. "As long as you're sure."

"I'm positive."

"We'll take care of it as soon as possible. What does your Dad think?"

"I don't really care. I told him I was doing it. I didn't ask him. I owe it to Mom and everything she did for me. It would've meant a lot to me to be an official part of the family but...I at least want the name before Sarah and I get married so she becomes a Marcus too. If we have children one day, I want them to carry the Marcus name."

Daniel Sr. just sat there absolutely beaming a huge smile at Mike. He put his hand on his shoulder, almost overcome with joy. Mike had been in his life since he was born and now here he was now, ready to move out into the world and face it head on.

"I know when June and I separated that you and I lost touch, just like I did with the other boys. But I've always loved you like a son, Mike. And I want you to know just how proud I am of the man you're becoming. June would be so proud. It would be an honor for you to share our name. I told June she should've just done it a long time ago. But she always wanted to give your father a second chance."

"That's the kind of person she was." Mike said with a smile. "But I want this done before Sarah and I get married."

"I know how much you love her. You remind me so much of June and I. We got married young because we had Abby and it was the right thing to do back then. But we loved each other as well. You and Sarah have your own reasons for getting married now. I know you both would've liked to have waited ideally. But under the circumstances, I'll tell you straight. I couldn't be more happier. I'm so proud right now. You have no idea."

"You know, I really want to call you Dad." Mike said with a thankful smile. "But ..."

"No, Mike. Not yet. If you do one day, I won't complain but I've been away too long. I have to earn it."

"It sure as hell would be a lot easier. All this time I've just been calling you Sir because calling you Mr. Marcus is just too formal for me. But when I become a Marcus officially, things will change."

"So how's everything going for the wedding?"

"It's a little bit scary knowing it's actually happening now but I'm excited and so is Sarah. I can't wait. I want Storm to be my best man. And I'm going to ask Dade to do me a special favor as well. It won't be a big wedding but Marcel already went ahead and paid for everything. It was his wedding gift to us."

"Wow."

"He didn't want Sarah's parents forking out for it. He wanted them to save it for taking care of her. And he wanted me to make sure I keep mine for my education. He didn't really give us an option. It's one of the first times he's made us take something from him."

"You kids are just wonderful. It makes me feel old just seeing all of you so grown up. June will be there on your wedding day, Mike. She'll be the pretty lady standing next to me." Daniel Sr. said with a grin.

"I know she will be. It's going to be a great day."

"Listen, I've spoken to Connie and I told her that if you two get into any kind of strife, she's to call me straight away. I know June's taken care of you but you make sure you use that for college. I'll take care of anything else you need if you need it."

"You don't have to do that."

"Yes, Mike." Daniel Sr. said firmly. "I do. I'd do it for any one of the others. And I'll do it for you as well. I won't let you argue with me on this one."

"I'll just start calling you Dad now shall I?" Mike joked as he patted Daniel Sr. on the back and stood up. "Thank you for doing this. You have no idea how long I've wanted to be a real part of this family."

"You always were, Mike. June wouldn't have had it any other way. And neither would I or Abby, Dade or Storm. I promise we'll have everything taken care of before you get married. And I want to help more so if there's anything else you two need, I'm here."

"I'm gonna go over to Sarah's and tell her the good news. Can I please call you Dad now?"

"What about your real Dad?"

"I can still call him the same thing. I don't even know if I want him at my wedding though."

"Well, that's up to you, Son. But whatever you decide, I'm going to be there."

"Thanks." Mike said as he almost lifted Daniel Sr. off the ground with a hug. "Sarah's going to be so happy! Thank you so much."

"You're welcome, Son. You're welcome."

 

* * * * * *

 

"Hey, Beautiful." Mike said as he brushed a wisp of Sarah's hair from her face.

"Hi." Sarah smiled back, her eyes still half mast.

"How you feeling this morning?"

"I didn't have anything to drink and I still feel like I'm hung over." Sarah smiled wearily. "Sorry, I'm having an off day today."

"You want me to stay here with you?"

"No, no. It's semi finals. I've got enough people waiting on me as it is. I want you to enjoy your last games. I know how much it means to you."

"Not as much as you."

"Go. Have some fun. I'll be fine. They need their captain. Two more wins and you guys take the premiership. You can do it, Baby. This is your future. Go kick some ass." Sarah said with an adoring smile. "Do it for Merlow."

"I will." Mike responded with a smile. "I have some good news."

"What?"

"Daniel Senior is going to finish what Mom started and make me an official Marcus. That means you'll be a Marcus too."

"I don't care what my last name is as long as it's yours as well. But I know how much this means to you, and so it means just as much to me. Thank you, Baby."

"You're tired. Get some rest. I'll be back later on, ok?" Mike said as he kissed Sarah's lips and then her forehead as lovingly as he always did. "Love you."

Sarah had already fallen back to sleep and a worried look passed over Mike's face. Sarah always did her best to be upbeat for everyone but Mike was one of the few she let herself go in front of. He knew she'd used a lot of energy just being sociable for everyone who'd come to support her. He also knew she'd enjoyed it and it was a good experience for her, but he still worried that she was overdoing it. As far as he was concerned, their wedding couldn't come soon enough. As much as he loved and was going to miss Merlow, the faster he took Sarah away, the quicker she'd have a chance to fight back and recover. That was all he wanted. For her to be well again. To be strong. To be happy. To be free. To be his Sarah again. That was all he wanted.

 

* * * * * *

 

I worried about so many people close to me these days but one person who I worried about most was Marcel. I know we had our moment at the party. Our `pack' moment but still, the realization that all of us wouldn't be together much longer was starting to sink in. And I just had this feeling, especially after what had happened with Dade, that Marcel would be feeling pretty lonely right about now. A feeling that worried me even more was the idea that he too might not be hanging around much longer. With Mike and Sarah leaving and things with Dade just going to hell, there wouldn't be too much holding him to this place now. Especially with Mom's death. I wouldn't blame him for wanting to leave if he was thinking about it.

And that's why I was here. Standing at his front door just wanting to make sure he was ok. He and I would no doubt be the only ones not at the game today. Might give us a good chance to just hang out and for me to make sure he's doing ok.

"Hey." I said with a smile as Marcel opened the door.

"Hey, Storm." He replied with a kind of half smile, happy to see me but not really happy to see me. "Why didn't you just come in?"

"I don't know. I just wanted to see how you were doing. You ok?"

"I'm doing ok, Storm." Marcel said as he ushered me in. "You want a drink or something?"

"No thanks." I said with a worried look on my face as I found two suitcases beside the door. "What are these for? You going somewhere?"

"I'm flying back up to Drake today."

"You are?" I asked with a disappointed frown. "You're leaving now? What about Mike and Sarah's wedding?"

"I'll be there. I just have some unfinished business to take care of. I'll be back."

"Listen, I know things are rough right now but you don't have to leave. Come and stay with us if you want. I don't want you to go again. Not like this. You're not just doing this because of Dade are you?"

"I'm coming back, I promise. I left some things behind and I want to pick them up. And I have a few other things to take care of. That's why the suitcases are empty."

"I don't want you going back there on your own. When are you coming back?"

"Tomorrow night hopefully. Monday morning otherwise."

"Good. Then I'll be back in time for school."

"What?"

"I'm coming with you."

"Huh?"

"I'm coming with you."

"What about Lucas?"

"He'll understand. I have enough for a ticket. When do we fly out?"

"Storm ..."

"I'm coming. I don't want you going back there on your own. I don't know what the deal is with those guys but if they're still up there, I swear to hell I'm gonna rip them a new asshole. You're not going back there on your own, Marcel."

"So you can still be stubborn then?" Marcel asked with a grin.

"When it matters. So, when do we leave?"

"Flight leaves in two hours. But if you're coming with me, I'm getting your ticket. And on that, I'm being as stubborn as you are about coming. I can't believe you're doing this. You're still as impulsive as ever."

"When it matters. I don't want you being alone right now. Especially on this trip."

"You gonna say bye to Dade?"

"Umm lemme think." I said mockingly. "No. Not after last night and not after what he did to you."

"It wasn't his fault, Storm. I should've told him."

"Nah nah nah. Don't go blaming yourself for anything. Especially not this. Don't you dare. You've been through enough without having this shit in your head. Dade can do whatever the hell he wants but he can't bring you down. I won't let him."

"Are you trying to be my hero or something?" Marcel asked with a smile. "Do I look like I need protecting?"

"Everybody does sometimes, Marcel. Where's your ticket?"

"Here." Marcel said holding it up.

"Good." I said taking it from him. "Just in case you decide to go without me while I'm picking up some gear."

"Don't trust me aye?" Marcel asked with a cheeky wink. "Think I'll run off without you and never come back?"

"Just let me look after you this one time, Marcel. I owe you as much."

"No you don't, Storm. I appreciate you doing this but you don't owe me anything."

"Yes I do. But I won't say why until we're gone. I'm gonna head home and grab some gears. I'll be back in like half an hour and then we'll head to the airport."

"You sure about this?"

"Positive. Besides, it'll be fun. Just you and me."

"Thanks, Storm." Marcel said as he gave me an impromptu hug. "Thank you."

"I want you to know, Marcel. I'll do whatever I can to help you, whenever you need me. You're one of the most incredible people I know. I don't want you to ever feel like you're alone again. Losing Mom just made me realize what's important to me. You, Mike, Sarah, Lucas. You're all that matters to me now. I'll do anything for you."

"What about Dade?" Marcel asked with concern. "You don't have to avoid him just because of me. What's happened to you two?"

"Shit happened." I said with a shrug. "I don't know, Marcel. But we're definitely not close anymore."

"He should be more important than any of us, Storm. He's your family."

"Let's not talk about him please. I thought he'd be the last person you'd want to talk about."

"What's happening between you and him is more important than how I feel. I'm worried about you."

"I'm fine, Marcel. Let's just do this and get back here before school on Monday. Everything else can wait. Because we are coming back, aren't we?"

"Of course we are." Marcel said with a slightly mischievous grin. "Of course we are."

 

* * * * * *

 

Brad sat at the back of the stands watching the semi final game between Merlow and Henderson. One thing he'd always been pure about was his football. No matter what anyone said about him, he was always a good player and a good vice captain. Watching the game now only caused him anguish but he couldn't help himself. Every week he'd watch from his perch in the back of the stands, where no one could see or bother him. He wished somehow he was still playing because he knew that next season he would have been captain after Mike left.

He wondered if his wrist would heal enough to let him play next season. Or if it did whether they'd even want him back on the team. It would be his last chance to play for Merlow High before he graduated. It was a dream that inspired him. That gave him hope and something to work toward. He doubted with Marty Lee around whether he'd get back on the team. Marty Lee could hurt him again or just use his influence to keep Brad off the team. Since Marty Lee had become one of the better players on the team, he had a bit more pull off field. And without Mike around to help get him back in, he wondered if he had a chance. He doubted Lucas would help him. Or Dade. But maybe Josh would. Just maybe if he played his cards right and showed Josh that he was different now. Maybe Josh would help him.

Josh was Brad's pick to take Mike's place as captain next season. Even though Lucas was the current vice captain, he just didn't think Lucas had the fortitude to be a leader.

"I'm getting back in there." Brad said to himself as he leaned forward and rested his chin on the railing before him. "Somehow, I'll get back in there."

 

* * * * * *

 

"Good win, Guys." Mike smiled as he did the ritual walk around the changing rooms, shaking everyone's hand.

It was a tradition with him after every game to go around and let every player know he was happy with them. He believed it helped to foster good will and boost morale. This would be the second to last time he'd ever get to do this and he became a bit melancholy just thinking about it. He hoped he could lead Merlow to one more premiership before he left. He knew the team could do it. And it would be a great way to retire from the team.

"Let's hear it for the boss!" Lucas yelled as he stood on top of the changing bench and poured a huge bucket of ice over Mike. "One more game and then we're rid of him!"

"Damn you, Sheridan." Mike scowled as he shook the ice off himself. "Just wait till next week."

"Seriously. What do you guys say we take out the premiership for Merlow's greatest ever captain?"

Lucas' call was met with a chorus of cheers. A hot sweaty changing room full of half naked guys all screaming their heads off in support of their soon departing captain.

"And I'll tell you what. If we win next week, you guys can all come to my wedding the week after. Otherwise you'll all be serving food at the reception. How does that sound?" Mike said jokingly.

"And all you guys know that if we win next week, we'll be heroes of Merlow. The premiership final is on the same day as the school ball. You might even get lucky with some of your dates. Even you, Carl!" Lucas said with a wink as he pointed to an annoyed Carl.

"Bite me, Sheridan." Carl said giving Lucas a one finger salute. "And who's wearing the corsage at the ball next week? The way you played today it'll probably be you!"

Lucas let himself suck in the mock taunts. He knew Carl was only joking and he had baited him first. He was actually pleased that everyone had adapted to him being open with Storm now. He still got hassled every so often by the usual homophobic chest beating of some players, but he was the vice captain so he still got respect. That was about all he wanted.

Carl was just joking around with Lucas. He considered Storm one of his best friends, even though he knew he wasn't as close as the pack. He watched Lucas continue to joke around with the rest of the team as he headed into the showers. He let the water run cold over his aching body. Today had been a hard game and he was looking forward to getting clean before he went home to just chill out for a while. He was so distracted by his thoughts that he didn't even realize that Dade had entered the showers right next to him.

"You've been quiet today." Carl said in an attempt to spark some life out of the quiet Marcus brother. "You played a good game."

"Thanks, Carl." Dade said softly as he began soaping himself up.

"I noticed you and Claire last night. You two serious?"

"She's waiting for me outside so I guess you could say it is kinda serious."

"You going to the ball together?"

"Yeah. We are."

"Cool." Carl said rather unenthusiastically.

"You taking anyone?"

"I doubt it." Carl said with a shrug as he turned his shower off and headed out.

"Well ... guess I'll catch you later then." Dade said meekly as he continued showering.

He still felt somewhat isolated and ashamed for many of his recent actions. Lashing out at Storm. Pushing things with Claire. Unintentionally hurting Marcel. He felt himself being pushed more to the outside of the pack now. Mostly due to his own actions. As a result he was staying in the background as much as he could. He was afraid to go and see Storm because he didn't know what to expect anymore. And mostly because he was just ashamed of himself and didn't know what to do anymore when it come to his brother. `Sorry' just wouldn't cut it this time. He'd crossed a line he'd never crossed before. He'd never felt this disconnected from Storm before. Just thinking about his brother made him feel empty inside.

And then there was Marcel. Someone else he wanted so much to even just speak to. He knew when he saw Marcel's eyes that he'd hurt him. Knew that Marcel's feelings for him were still there and obviously still strong. But something had held Marcel back before. Held him back from being with Dade. And Dade hadn't pushed to find out what it was.

It was all a little disorienting. Dade didn't know what to do next. All he knew was that Claire was waiting for him outside. Yesterday it seemed like such a great idea. And he promised Claire he wouldn't leave her like Josh did. And no matter what people thought of him, he valued his word. No matter how wrong it seemed right now. In his heart even now he knew it was still Marcel. He doubted that anyone could ever take his place. Nor would he want them to. Being with Claire was simply for the sake of being with someone. They didn't love each other. They just liked each other. But how long would it be before their feelings for each other changed?

"What the hell was I thinking?" Dade said to himself as he shook his head. "How are you going to fix this, Dade?"

"Fix what, Dude?" Lucas said in his usual chirpy tone as he began showering up next to Dade.

"Oh, nothing." Dade said with a feigned smile.

Dade wasn't sure if Lucas was just being friendly for the sake of being friendly, or whether he knew about the argument he'd had with Storm. If he did, he didn't seem too angry about it. Still, there was an awkward silence between them that made Dade's stomach turn. Usually, Lucas would talk away but he seemed content to have his back towards Dade and remain silent.

"How's ... Storm settling in?" Dade asked finally, unable to bear anymore of the strange silence between them.

"Why don't you ask him, Dude?" Lucas said as he turned around with his usual smile plastered on his face. "Find out yourself."

"Uhh no thanks, Lucas. I don't think Storm would like that."

"Of course he wouldn't." Lucas said with a knowing smile. "He told me what happened. He told me about you as well. That's some pretty heavy stuff, Dude. I wish you had of told him before. Or anyone else for that matter."

"I want to go and see him, Lucas. So much. I'm just scared I'll make things worse."

"By the sounds of it, they can't get much worse than they already are. What's to lose if you think you've lost it already, Dude?"

"Maybe I will go see him."

"Well, you'll have to wait for that. He's gone."

"What? Where?"

"He's flown to Drake with Marcel. They should be back by Monday. Maybe tomorrow night but I doubt it. That's what they said anyway."

"But they're both coming back, right?"

"Of course, Dude. Storm's just ... well ... looking after Marcel." Lucas said as he headed back to his changing room locker in an attempt to end his conversation with Dade.

"I guess this means you'll be alone tonight." Dade said with a soft, almost meek tone in his voice as he followed Lucas.

"I guess so, Dude. I guess I should go to Bobby Weiss' party. No doubt you and Claire will be going?"

"I guess so." Dade shrugged ambivalently. "If she wants to."

"Well, maybe I'll see you there." Lucas said as he threw his bag over his shoulder, about to leave. "See you around."

"Yeah." Dade sighed as he watched Lucas leave the changing rooms. "See you round."

 

* * * * * *

 

"You played good today, Josh." Mike said as he patted Josh on the back.

"Thanks, Mike." Josh replied with a smile as he was about to leave the changing rooms.

"Before you go, Josh. I spoke to Coach Anderson. With me leaving now and not being here next season, I put your name up for captain. It'll be between you and Lucas. One of you will be captain, the other will be vice captain. However you do it though, I just want you to know that you've been a great part of this team for as long as I've been captain. Thank you for all your support."

"You're welcome, Boss." Josh said biting his lip as he realized he was really going to miss having Mike around. "And I know you've still got one more week left but I just want to say that I'll be hoping Sarah gets better soon so that maybe you might just come back next season. As much as I'd like to be captain or VC, you're the best."

"Awww, gimmie a hug." Mike said breaking his formal demeanor by wrapping his arms around Josh and bear hugging him. "Don't make me cry now."

"I'll see you tonight." Josh said with a smile as Mike let him go. "Don't worry, we're going to win it for you next week."

"For all of us. Listen, you're coming to my wedding right?"

"I am?" Josh asked in surprise.

"Of course you are. You have to come."

"I'll be there." Josh said with a beaming smile.

Josh watched Mike join in the revelry that still continued with much of the team. Just watching him laugh and fool around reminded Josh of all the times he'd seen him do the very same thing over the years. Josh had known Mike since they were six years old. They were never best friends but he always respected Mike and realized just how strange it would be without him. Especially for the team. He was the core. The one everybody turned to and looked up to.

With a warm reminiscing smile, Josh left the changing room and began the long walk home. He'd only made it two steps outside when he saw Claire standing against the wall. No doubt waiting for Dade. With an awkward deep breath he continued walking. There wouldn't be any getting past her without them noticing each other. He decided he'd do the proper thing and at least say hello or acknowledge her presence.

"Claire." Josh said with a small nod as he walked past Claire.

"Josh." Claire said with an awkward smile. "How are you?"

Josh stopped in his tracks, realizing Claire wasn't content with just a passing hello. He turned to face her and forced a weak smile. For a moment the two once close pair stood silently, waiting for the other to speak. Josh was about to turn and leave when Claire took the initiative.

"Josh ..."

"Yes?"

"I'm sorry about Dade. I know how you felt about him. I didn't plan for this."

"He's not for me anyway." Josh said with a shrug.

Josh wanted to say that Dade wasn't for Claire either but he figured it wouldn't be appropriate. And he never took pleasure in hurting Claire. He knew Claire well enough to know she was intelligent enough to realize what was going on with Dade and Marcel. At least he hoped she did.

"Hey, Guys." Dade said somewhat anxiously as he approached.

If Josh felt uncomfortable before, he felt twice as uncomfortable now. All he wanted to do was be somewhere else right now. No one was saying anything and it was obvious there were still some unresolved issues between the once close group.

"Josh, thanks for last night." Dade said somewhat embarrassed. "I didn't get a chance to thank you yet. Thanks for looking after me."

"You're welcome. I better go." Josh said in an attempt to end the conversation. "I'll see you around."

"Josh, do you want to come to the lake with us?"

"I don't think so, Dade. Thanks for asking."

And with that, Josh left Claire and Dade standing alone. Both feeling as awkward as the other. They shared a glance of quiet disappointment as they watched Josh walk away.

"He left me because he wanted you. And now I have you. This must be pretty weird for him." Claire sighed. "Poor Josh."

"All I seem to be doing lately is hurting people who care about me." Dade said with a distracted look in his eyes. "I didn't mean to with Josh. But still ... he's not the only one."

"You ok?" Claire asked as she led Dade by the hand to her car.

"Yeah." Dade sighed. "I'll be ok. You wanna come to Bobby's party tonight? Everyone on the team's going."

"You want me to come with you?"

"You're my girl, aren't you?"

"Sure am." Claire smiled. "I'd love to come."

"Guess it's a date then."

"Guess it's a date."

 

* * * * * *

 

Brad lay back on his bed still dreaming about the future. Wondering if he'd ever play football again. Whether he'd ever be an accepted part of the team or even the school. It'd been so long since he'd been outcast by almost everyone that he'd almost forgotten what it was like to actually have friends. There were a few select people that he liked and respected. People who gave him the time of day when they didn't have to. People who were more popular and respected than he ever was. Storm was one of them. Supposedly Brad's closest friend at the moment. Brad had kept his distance though, not wanting to crowd the popular Marcus brother during what seemed to be a tumultuous period for him. Sarah was another person Brad cared about a lot. She always took time to say hello to him before she got sick. And then inviting him to her party. Mike was always the same, courteous and approachable. They were still the king and queen of the school and he was going to miss them when they left.

Josh though was someone Brad hoped to really become friends with again. He'd never treated Josh well or appreciated him when they were last friends. Even though Josh was always steady and dependable, quiet and generous. He hoped that one day he could be friends with at least someone. Friends with someone where he actually meant something and wasn't just a casual hanger on.

"Maybe one day." Brad sighed.

"Hey, Loser!" Brad's younger brother, Billy called out from the kitchen. "Someone actually called for you! Pick up your fucken' phone!"

Brad shook his head at his little brother's attitude. There was a time when Billy used to look up to Brad but just like everyone else in Merlow, he thought Brad was a loser now and had no problem treating him like one. Even Billy didn't talk to him in school. Brad didn't blame him. They'd never really been close and all Billy wanted to do was try and be popular. That meant treating Brad like shit in public. Only he kept it up at home as well.

"Who is it?" Brad yelled back as he was about to pick up his phone.

"Sarah Leo! You better pick it up before she comes to her senses and hangs up on you!"

"Whoa." Brad said in surprise as he picked up the phone. "Sarah?"

"Hi, Brad." Sarah said trying to sound as chirpy as she could.

"Everything ok? You sound tired. What can I do for you?"

"I just wanted to say thank you for the card and flowers. I wish you had of said hello. I didn't even see you there last night."

"I didn't hang around for very long, Sarah. I'm glad you had a good turn out for your party."

"How are you, Brad? Everything going ok?"

"I'm ok, Sarah." Brad said with an appreciative smile. "Thanks for asking. How about you?"

"I'm ok. Just a little tired. I just wanted to call and say thank you. That was really sweet of you, Brad."

"You're welcome."

"You're coming to my wedding, right?"

"Really?" Brad asked in surprise. "Me?"

"Of course. You'll be there?"

"If you're sure you want me there. I'd love to come."

"Excellent. Well, I'd better go. I just wanted to call and say thank you. Come over and say hi sometime."

"Thanks." Brad said with an even bigger smile than he was just wearing. "I will. Take care, Sarah. I hope you get better soon. Merlow won't be the same without you."

"Thanks, Brad. Talk to you soon. Bye."

"Bye." Brad said happily as he hung up the phone.

"What's she calling you for?" Billy asked as he stood at the door. "She taking pity on the school loser?"

"Go to hell." Brad said refusing to let Billy ruin his good mood. "She called because she's my friend. That's what friends do."

"She's your friend? Sarah Leo? Yeah right. Go read a book or something ya loser."

"I'm going out." Brad said as he threw on his sandals and walked out past his brother. "At least I'm not a wannabe like you."

"Dreamer."

"Least I have them."

"Loser."

"Whatever." Brad said as he slammed the front door behind him.

The last place he wanted to be right now was at home with his little brother tormenting him relentlessly. Sarah's call had boosted his spirit's bigtime. He wasn't going to let his brother bring him down so he'd go somewhere else. Somewhere he could be by himself and do more of that dreaming his brother hated so much. Somewhere he'd been going to since he was a little kid. His space.

 

* * * * * *

 

Josh sat on a huge branch of an oak tree that hovered over the waters of Lake Herren. His feet dangled in the water aimlessly. He'd been here for almost an hour now just wanting some time on his own. His eyes were bloodshot from crying and he still didn't feel any better than he did when he first came. Nothing seemed to be going his way. Dade was a lost cause to him now and he accepted it because he felt Marcel was the one for Dade. And he respected Marcel too much to try and interfere.

He still felt weird about Dade and Claire hooking up. It was the last thing he expected yet somehow he could understand why the two of them did hook up. A pairing of convenience. Something Josh couldn't settle for. Something he didn't believe Claire should settle for either.

It was all just more fuel to his already conflicted emotions. He felt as though his path was going to be a lonely one. He didn't want to be the way he was. He didn't want to like other guys. He didn't want to let his parent's down. He'd decided he'd be alone rather than upset them but right now being alone was looking like a life sentence.

He stared down at his feet as he contemplated his situation. Wanting so much to be something he wasn't. Yet still wanting to be happy. Wanting to have someone who was really his. If only he could've been what Claire wanted, everything would be fine. But he couldn't. And that's what he hated. It was all so ... lonely.

"Josh?"

"Brad?" Josh asked in surprise as he looked up to see Brad standing on the shore.

"Are you ok?" Brad asked with concern as he saw Josh's face still wet from crying.

"What are you doing here?"

"Same thing you are. Just wanted to be by myself. I always come here. I didn't know you still did."

"You remember when we used to come here?" Josh asked in surprise.

"Yeah. Seems like ages ago."

"It was."

"Do you want me to leave you alone?" Brad asked, about to turn on his feet to head back up the track he came down on.

"I think that would be best. I'm not the greatest company right now."

"Can I ... help maybe?"

"You really want to?"

"I'd like to if I can." Brad said navigating the large branch so he could sit down next to Josh.

Brad pulled off his sandals and let his feet wade in the water. He wanted to jump in for a swim but his wrist was still in a cast. He had a lot more mobility now but some things were still awkward for him.

"You're really different, Brad." Josh said as he gave Brad a puzzling look.

"You mean I'm even more of a loser now?"

"No. You're not. You're actually a nice guy."

"Who'd have thought?" Brad said with a smirk. "So what's on your mind, Josh?"

"Just ... stuff."

"What kind of stuff? I don't like seeing you cry like this. What's wrong?"

"You ever feel like ... you're just ... wrong? Like maybe god made a mistake with you or something?" Josh asked as he continued to stare down at his feet.

"Heh. You think?" Brad said sarcastically. "Every day. I keep thinking I'll wake up one day and be captain of the football team, have lots of friends and be liked by everybody. And that I won't be the school reject anymore."

"Oh. Right. Sorry."

"Josh, I know I wasn't very nice to you when we used to hang out but that was years ago. I'm not the same. I'm sorry for the way I treated you. I'd like to be your friend again if you'll let me."

"It was years ago, Brad. You don't have to keep apologizing for it. I know you're different. I like the new you. You might think you're a loser but you aren't. You're friends with Storm now, aren't you?"

"Kinda. He's had a lot on his mind lately. I've been trying not to crowd him."

"Don't you think it's kind of amazing that you two are friends now? After what happened between you two? I don't think he'd be friends with you if he didn't think you were worth being friends with. He's pretty selective. I'd like to be better friends with you too, Brad. I just don't think I'd be very good friend material at the moment."

"Is it because of Claire? I know you were pretty distressed the other week at school. And like I saw them at the party together. Her and Dade. Is that what you're so down about?"

"Partly."

"What else then?"

"Just ... stuff."

"Can I help?"

"You really want to?"

"Sure."

"See ... now why weren't you like this when we were friends before?" Josh asked still surprised by Brad's true nature.

"Would've ruined my reputation if people knew I actually had feelings." Brad said with a smile. "I thought the only way to have people like me was to make them like me. Intimidate them. Stupid aye?"

"Yeah. It was." Josh grinned. "Really stupid. But it was a long time ago."

"I'm here if you ever need someone to talk to. It's not like I have people lining up to talk to me so I'm usually available."

"You wanna come with me to Bobby's party tonight?"

"I don't think that'd be such a good idea." Brad said with a reluctant shake of his head. "I don't think I'd be welcome."

"You went to Sarah's party, didn't you?"

"Yeah but she invited me. I didn't stay long though. I think I'll pass, Josh. Sorry."

"Come on, Brad. I promise I'll stay with you all night. It'll be like old times."

"Except this time you'll be in charge." Brad said with a smile. "I'm not sure, Josh. I wanna hang out but that just makes me nervous. I only went to Sarah's party because I respect her. I don't know about Bobby and the team."

"I have to go. Everyone on the team is going to be there. It's our last party before the finals next week. Otherwise I'd pass too. But I'd really like it if you came with me. You gotta start getting back out there sometime."

"I kinda like where I am. The only people I really talk to are Storm and Sarah and everyone."

"What about Mike? He'll be there. He'll look out for you too. Please, Brad?"

"Umm ... are you really sure you want to be seen hanging out with me?"

"Sure I do. So would you like to come with me?"

"Ok. I'll come with you, Josh." Brad said with a weary smile. "You're not setting me up are you?"

"Do you really need to ask me that?"

"No. Sorry. I'm just a bit surprised that's all. But if you're sure you want me to. I'll come."

"Great." Josh said with a broad smile. "Should be fun."

 

* * * * * *

 

Lucas lay on his lounge suite, flicking the buttons on his tv remote aimlessly. He wasn't watching anything. He was just anxious and trying to kill time. He missed his baby and the house seemed so empty. Yet he'd only been gone for less than a day. Just knowing that he was hundreds of kilometers away didn't help. He got up and turned the stereo on, thinking that might distract him. When the song that came on was Empty by Cranberries, it did anything but distract him.

"Great one, Dude." Lucas sighed to himself as he flicked the stereo off. "Damn this sucks. You are soooo lame, Lucas."

Lucas continued fretting about. Cleaning a house that was already clean. Arranging things that had already been arranged. Anything to keep him occupied. He was anxious for some reason. He knew Storm would only be gone a couple days at most but he still wasn't a hundred percent sure about his mate's state of mind right now. He wanted him home so at least he could keep an eye on him and look after him.

He still had a couple hours to kill before Bobby's party. He supposed he should make the most of his solo time and try and have some fun. Storm would probably tell him to if he were here.

"That's what I'll do." Lucas said as he grabbed the hamper of clothes by his bed and headed to the laundry.

He was interrupted by knocking at the door. He wondered who it could be as he headed to the door and opened it. A huge smile passed over his face as none other than Sarah herself stood before him.

"Sarah! What are you doing here?" Lucas said happily as he led her in by the hand.

"Just had to get out of the house. Too many people fussing over me so don't you start as well."

"Where's Mike?" Lucas asked as he sat Sarah down and instinctively grabbed some light snacks and refreshments for her. "Want anything else?"

"No thanks, Lucas. Mike's already at Bobby's helping him set up. I just wanted to get out for a little while. Hope you don't mind."

"Course not."

"So how's the living arrangements going?"

"Ok. Pretty good. It's not the first time we've lived together but it's the first time we've had our own house together. It is kinda weird but I like it. You'll have to ask Storm whether he feels the same way."

"You think he's going to be ok when we go?"

"He'll probably say he is. He talks to me a lot more these days but I know he still keeps a lot of his feelings locked up. All the bad stuff. He gives me all the good stuff and keeps all the bad stuff. He doesn't get angry anymore. That's what worries me sometimes. It's hard to get a reaction out of him these days. Even Dade had a go at him last night and he just took it. He's keeping a lot in. If I know what he's like now though, he's going to put on a strong front to make sure you guys don't worry about him when you leave. But I know he's going to have a hard time with it."

"Poor Storm. I wish I could take him with me but I don't think you'd like that would you?"

"Uhh hmm let me think, Dude." Lucas said sarcastically. "No. No, I don't think I would."

"I still don't think he's over June's death. Far from it. And this shit with Dade just doesn't help."

"Seriously though, Sarah." Lucas said with a suddenly serious tone. "If Storm getting away from Merlow for a while really were the best thing. If it would help him get over everything that's happened lately. Maybe even just for a holiday while school's out. A couple weeks. A couple months. Whatever it took. I'd let him go. If that's what it took for him to get over all of this."

"Do you mean that, Lucas? Maybe some time away would be good for him. He'll have three months off. He could spend maybe some of that time with Mike and I. What if he decided he didn't want to come back though?"

"Then I guess I'd have to leave Merlow too. It's all speculation right now though, Babe. I mean, he might not want to go anywhere. I don't think he'd leave me even if I asked him to have a break away from Merlow."

"I don't think three months would do your relationship any favors, Lucas."

"Our relationship comes second to Storm's wellbeing. There's no point in us being together if he's not happy. I know he's happy with me, but he's not happy with himself. And that's the most important thing. I don't want him going backwards, Sarah. I don't want him to end up like Dade. I think we've all worked out now that Dade was going to jump off Reese Bridge. I won't let Storm go down that track."

"Even if it meant sending him away?"

"Change of scenery might be just what he needs. Might be the fresh air he needs to breathe some life back into him. Too many memories here. And with Dade giving him grief as well. It's not a good place for him to be. Not with you guys leaving too. Marcel won't be far behind."

"I never would've though you'd be the last one here, Lucas." Sarah said with a frown. "Never would've thought."

"I'll talk to Storm when he gets back. See if he wants some time away from Merlow."

"And I'll talk to Mike. I'll see what he thinks about Storm leaving with us."

"Just feel him out, Sarah. Ask him whether he thinks it might be a good idea."

"I will. Man ... it's amazing how things can change. And it's almost as if June's death trigged a chain of events that we're still experiencing. I'm sure if she were still here, things would be a lot different." Sarah said with a melancholy smile.

"To June." Lucas said as he raised his glass of OJ. "She's still sorely missed."

"To June."

 

* * * * * *

 

"Are you sure I should be here?" Brad asked nervously as he entered Bobby's house.

It had been a while since he'd been to any of the football parties. Or any parties for that matter. Sarah's party was the first one he'd been to in a long time. The only reason he was here right now was because of Josh. He tried not to let himself get too excited but he really felt as if he and Josh were on the road to becoming good friends.

"Of course you should be here. Don't worry, I won't leave you alone all night." Josh said reassuringly.

"You don't have to babysit me, Josh. I want you to have a good time too."

"I will have a good time." Josh said with a smile.

The pair made their way out to the entertaining deck where most of the action was happening. Brad received about as many welcoming looks as he had at Sarah's part. None. He tried to brush them off but he was feeling pretty nervous right now. Even more so when Bobby Weiss himself made his way over.

"Hey, Josh." Bobby said slapping Josh the team handshake. "Glad you could make it. What's he doing here?"

"He's here with me." Josh said as he put his hand on Brad's shoulder in a show of support. "No problem, right?"

"Sure." Bobby said giving Brad an almost snobbish scowl as he looked him up and down. "Whatever you want, Josh."

"Cool. Nice setup, Bobby. The whole team here yet?"

"I think so. Make yourself at home, Josh. Help yourself to anything you want. You too, Brad."

"Thanks." Brad said with a meek smile.

"See, that wasn't so bad. Was it?" Josh asked as Bobby left them alone.

"I guess not."

"Come on. What do you want to drink?" Josh asked as he led Brad to the drinks table.

"Uhh, I'll have whatever you're having."

"Ok." Josh said as he poured Brad a glass of the house punch. "It's probably got a bit of a kick in it. Might help loosen you up. You look so tense."

"Thanks." Brad said as he drank the whole cup in one go. "Yuck. First drink I've had in a long time. I'm not the partygoer I used to be."

"I didn't mean loosen up that fast." Josh laughed as he served Brad up another glass. "Don't drink this one too fast. Just try to relax. You're ok, Brad. We're gonna have a good night."

Brad shook his head vigorously as he felt the effects of the first glass already. He didn't even know what it was but it was strong enough to relax him at least a little. Enough that his head even began to move in time slightly to the steady stream of pop music blaring from the sound system.

"That's more like it, Brad." Josh said with a smile as he began doing the greeting rounds.

Brad stayed close to Josh like he was the tamer in a lion den. Keeping Brad safe from the lions all around him. Josh always made sure to look behind him to make sure Brad was always within arms length of him. He knew Brad was anxious and unsettled. He made sure Brad knew he was always there so he wouldn't worry. Tossing him the odd reassuring smile every now and then, just to let him know everything was ok.

Brad had to admit he was actually starting to enjoy himself. He knew he was riding on Josh's coat tails and that he wouldn't be here without him. But still he was having a good time and he was enjoying Josh's company a lot. Josh was doing an awesome job of making sure Brad was ok. Shooting Brad a reassuring smile every so often even while he was in the middle of a conversation with one of the other partygoers.

Brad was getting used to doing the fake smile buzz whenever Josh introduced him. Brad already knew everyone and they all knew him. And after the initial downward glances from people, they were actually starting to talk to Brad as if he were normal. Brad knew it was only because of Josh that they were bothering but still it was nice. He took pleasure in the fact that he still knew more about football than half the current team. And that meant the conversations were all ones he could usually pass through with flying colors.

"You having a good time?" Josh asked as he pulled Brad into an empty corner.

"Yeah, Josh." Brad beamed. "I'm having a great time. Thank you so much for bringing me."

"You're welcome. I won't let anybody give you a hard time, Brad. I just want you to enjoy yourself."

"What about you, Josh? Are you having a good time? I'm not cramping your style?"

"I don't have style, Brad." Josh grinned. "And any style I do have, I stole off Dade."

"Brad!" Mike yelled in surprise as he approached with a large smile. "I didn't expect to see you here. It's good to see you."

"Thanks, Mike. Good to see you too."

"You two came together?"

"A huh." Josh nodded. "How's Sarah doing, Mike?"

"She's doing ok, Josh. Thanks for asking."

"She called me today." Brad said a little too excitedly before he realized how dorky he sounded.

"That's great, Brad. Really." Mike said trying not to laugh.

Brad blushed with a bashful smile as Josh and Mike smiled back at him. He couldn't believe though how good he felt right now. Just being out and not having people stare at him like he were some kind of freak. He still had a lot of those looks from people but it didn't seem to bother him as much tonight.

"So, Brad. You must be itching to get back out there again."

"Football?"

"You play another sport?"

"No."

"You must miss playing."

"I do. I miss it a lot."

"So next semester you'd probably be looking to try out for the team again. Wouldn't you?"

"I'd like to but ... I don't know whether I'd be welcome. Plus you won't be here so the team's gonna suck."

"Hey, I'll still be here." Josh said nudging Brad playfully. "We'll only half suck."

"Just say yes or no, Brad." Mike asked intently. "You keen to give it a go?"

"Oh hell yeah." Brad said almost jumping out of his pants. "Dead keen."

"Good. I'll have a word to Coach. Make sure you get a shot. You deserve it. You've come a long way, Brad. I just wish I had a chance to play with you again. That's one thing you were always good at."

"Is there a chance Sarah will get better so you can be back for our final season?"

"There's always a chance, Brad. But however long it takes is however long it takes."

"Oh yeah. Sorry. Didn't mean to sound insensitive. Sarah's more important than football. Won't be the same without you though, Mike." Brad said with a respectful nod. "You'll always be the man."

"He's right about that, Cap." Josh joined in. "Definitely won't be the same."

"Thanks, you guys." Mike said appreciatively. "Well I'd better get back and entertain ol' Gloom and Doom over there."

"Who?" Brad asked curiously.

"Lucas. He's going through withdrawal. His baby's gone away so he's mopey." Mike said with a cheeky smile. "I better go keep an eye on him before he drinks himself stupid. You guys have a good night."

"We will, Boss."

"Thanks, Mike." Brad said with a huge smile on his face as he turned to Josh. "Did you hear what he said? He's going to put a word in for me. I'm as good as in! I better start training again."

"Brad, next pre season training isn't for another few months. Besides, what about your arm?"

"Oh. That." Brad frowned. "It'll be ready by then. Don't worry. I'm getting back out there. I can't believe it!"

"You're happy?"

"Josh, I'm so glad you brought me here." Brad said as he hugged Josh. "I'm so happy. Thank you, thank you, thank you."

"You're welcome." Josh said with a blissful smile. "Good to see you smiling."

Brad was so happy right now that he was lost in his own little dream world. He didn't even see Josh being pulled away by one of the other players. By the time Brad looked up again there was no sign of Josh and a sea of people in every direction.

"Uh oh." Brad said with a gulp. "Josh?"

 

* * * * * *

 

"You ok, Dade." Claire asked as the two of them sat amongst a crowd of rowdy partygoers. "You've been quiet all night."

"Yeah, I'm ok." Dade said as he feigned her a smile. "I'm not really in the party mood tonight."

"You wanna get outta here?"

"No. I'll go when Mike goes."

"Why don't you go spend some time with him." Claire said with a generous smile. "Go on. Make the most of it before he leaves. I'll be ok."

"You sure?"

"Yeah. You look like you need some family company."

"Family aye?" Dade said with a cynical smile. "It's a funny thing, Claire. He's like the closest family member I have right now. And he's not even my real blood."

"Takes more than blood to be family, Dade."

"Try telling that to Storm." Dade said with a mournful sigh.

"He thinks of Mike as his brother though, doesn't he?"

"Of course he does. You'd think he'd give me the same courtesy." Dade said rolling his eyes as he leaned over and kissed Claire. "You sure you'll be ok?"

"Yeah. I might head over to Sarah's actually if you don't mind. Just wanna say hi. See how she's doing. I'll leave you here to party with the boys. I might come back later, we'll see what happens."

"Say hi to Sarah for me." Dade said as he kissed Claire again, lingering a little longer this time. "See you later."

"Not if I see you first. Bye, Babe." Claire smiled as she left him sitting on his own.

"Bye." Dade said with a blushing smile.

As soon as she'd left, the smile faded. She was a good distraction for him. And he really did like her. But he didn't love her. He knew it. She knew it. But he did enjoy her company and he figured the longer they were together, the more they'd grow to appreciate each other. And as far as girls went, he couldn't do much better than Claire.

"Where's Claire?" Carl said as he sat down next to Dade. "She left already?"

"Going to see Sarah."

"Oh. So how's everything going with you two?"

"It's going ok. How bout you? You asked Stacey to marry you yet?"

"Ugh. Don't make me gag. She is such an uber bitch. She looks good until she opens her mouth and gives you that scowl that only Stacey can give you."

"Who you got lined up for the ball next week?"

"Not sure yet. Might be going stag. No one really takes my fancy."

"Except Claire." Dade said with a grin.

"Oh of course not." Carl said vehemently. "She's your girl man."

"It's ok, Carl. You've liked her for as long as I can remember. I don't know why you didn't just ask her out when she was available."

"I did. We went out on a date. Don't you remember? Heh, why would you? But yeah, we went to that Disney marathon. That was around the same time Lucas skipped out on Storm. He thinks I didn't know about that back then." Carl said with a grin. "But I did."

"You're too clever, Carl. So tell me, what happened when you went out with Claire? Didn't click?"

"Not for her. Just for me. She never asked me for a second helping so ..." Carl blushed before he began laughing. "I guess she has real taste. She went out with Josh. And now you. I don't think I'm in her league. I've always liked her though. She just seems a bit beyond me."

"Claire doesn't have leagues. She's about as unassuming as you can get. Just ... keep your eyes open." Dade said as he stood up. "You never know what might happen."

"What's that supposed to mean?" Carl asked curiously.

"Exactly what you think it means." Dade said just as he spied Mike walking past and ran to grab him. "Bro! Mike!"

"Yeah, Dade?" Mike responded, stopping in his tracks. "What's up? Everything ok? Having a good time?"

"Hey, are you coming home tonight or are you staying at Sarah's?"

"I'm coming home. Sarah's spending time with her Dad. He won't be coming up with us when we leave. Only Connie. She said we can make up for any lost time after we get married. Why?"

"That's good." Dade sighed in relief. "I mean, that's not good but I mean ... shut up Dade, you idiot. I just mean I'm glad you're coming home tonight. What time do you think you'll head home?"

"I'll hang around until the party dies down. I told Bobby I'd keep everyone in line. Make sure there aren't any fights or drunkards causing trouble."

"Can I crash in your room tonight?"

"Aren't you a little big for that now, Dade?" Mike asked with a grin. "Thought you'd be after Claire's room tonight."

To Mike's amazement, Dade actually blushed. Which was exactly what Mike wanted Dade to do. He liked Claire and would accept Dade no matter who he was with but he still wanted Marcel to be happy. And he knew Marcel would only be happy with Dade.

"Where is she?" Mike asked as he prodded Dade. "She sick of you already?"

"She's gone over to Sarah's actually. And what's up with everyone asking me where Claire is? We haven't been going out that long." Dade said with a slight frown.

"What's wrong? You having a change of heart or something?"

"Heart didn't have anything to do with it. It just feels weird right now. Like everyone's watching us."

"I know one person was watching you last night." Mike said with a more serious tone. "I guess some of us are just surprised, that's all. But whatever makes you happy, Dade. Won't change the way I feel about you."

"That's what we expect from you, Bro." Dade said with a grateful smile.

"Even if I think you're making a big ass mistake." Mike smiled. "Guess some things just weren't meant to be, aye?"

"You really think that?"

"No. I'm just trying not to sound like I'm lecturing you. I just wanna enjoy my time with you before I go, Dade. If you want my advice, you can ask for it. And if you don't, then I'm just going to have fun. You got ten seconds. Make a choice, Mr. Carlyle."

"Smartass." Dade grinned. "I'm not sure whether I want your advice. Usually involves me getting a mental ass kicking."

"What are brothers for?" Mike asked with a smirk.

"I guess we should just have some fun. I don't think Claire will be coming back."

"So that means you two won't be jumping each other tonight?"

"Bro!"

"Just asking." Mike said with a cheeky grin. "Everyone knows you're a little sex fiend. Won't be long before you corrupt the poor girl."

"Mike!"

"You're so uptight tonight, Dade. It's not like you. Feeling guilty? Already given her the good stuff?"

"I'm gonna scream soon if you don't leave me alone. You're going to keep giving me a hard time about this, aren't you?"

"Of course I am. Every chance I get." Mike said with a wink. "What else are brothers for?"

"For giving advice." Dade said with an eager smile. "Since you're being such a punk. I figure I may as well get your advice so that when I use it and it all goes to hell, I can blame you! That oughta shut you up."

"Not likely, Dade. Besides, you know my words are gold. Come on, Bro." Mike said as he fell into a seat behind him, pulling Dade down at the same time. "Talk to me. What do ya want?"

"Well ..." Dade sighed, feeling rather relieved at being able to ask he respected as much as Mike, for help. "Take your pick. You probably know more about what's going on than you let on."

"Of course not." Mike said with a wry smile. "I wouldn't know a thing."

"That much aye?" Dade asked as he gave Mike his trademark eyebrow.

"And a bit more."

"So hit me, Bro. Marcel. What's going on with him? I mean one night he's giving me the brush off. And then at Sarah's party he's ripping my heart out with the saddest eyes I've ever seen on him. There's something going on and I get the feeling everyone knows something except me. I've been picking up these subtle hints from everyone lately."

"Bit of a role reversal don't you think, Dade?"

"Whatd'ya mean?"

"It wasn't long ago when you were the one keeping everyone out of the loop. You remember what it felt like for you? When you thought you couldn't tell anyone? Least of all Storm. Because you were afraid of what he would think. You were ashamed of something you couldn't change. You kept it to yourself for all that time. I don't know how you did it. But you remember how it felt trying to keep that from the people you love?"

"Yeah." Dade nodded regretfully. "I remember. Like I always used to say, it sucked being me for a while."

"You loved Storm and that's why you didn't want to tell him your secret."

"Loved? That's past tense. I still love him. But what are you getting at?"

"You've asked me a question outright and you know I'll never lie to you. So yes, there is something you don't know. And the same reason Marcel didn't tell you is the same reason you didn't want to tell Storm."

"What is it, Mike?" Dade asked with increasing concern.

"It's not my place to say, Dade. But you're in a bit of a tricky situation here. Marcel won't come anywhere near you as long as you're with Claire. You know he's already backing off. Probably half the reason he flew up to Drake today. I'm just glad Storm went with him. But he won't say anything to you, Dade. Not now."

"Why?"

"Because he'll believe it'd interfere with you and Claire. You know how he is."

"It's a biggie, isn't it?"

"It is, Dade. And it's not something you can take lightly. I probably shouldn't have said this much but I'm hoping ... you might just come to your senses."

"You think I should be with him? Honestly?"

"Don't ask me that, Dade. I'm not going to help make that decision for you. Ask yourself."

"I really screwed up, didn't I?"

"You had your reasons, Dade. They might not have been great reasons, but they were still yours. But I do want to say something. If you don't get back with him. He's going and don't expect him to come back this time. He's hurting, Dade. Why couldn't you see it? That's what I'm so surprised at. I thought you of all people would know what it's like to carry something you don't want to carry. Pain. Shame. Surely you've seen it in him?"

"Guess I've been a little too wrapped up in myself to notice lately. But I get the feeling I'm gonna hate myself when I learn what he's hiding from me."

"He's not hiding anything, Dade. He's just not telling. There's a difference. If you really wanted to know, you'd know. If you really asked him, he'd tell you. He's not hiding. But he won't tell you unless you really ask him. Do you know what I mean?"

"I think so." Dade said with a nod. "But there's still Claire to think about."

"And that's why you have a problem. But I'll tell you something. If she knew what he'd been through, she'd dump you before you could even blink."

"I don't think I can wait for him to get back to find out. But I know no amount of bribe is going to work with you."

"Sorry, Dade. I gave him my word. My word means a lot to me."

"I know, Bro."

"I wish you knew, Dade. I really do. But I think I've said as much as I can. Probably even more than I should have."

"Let me ask you something, Mike. If I wasn't with Claire. Would he take me back? Do you really think there's a chance for us?"

"I damn well hope so, Dade. For his sake. He needs you. We've done our bit. Storm's still doing his bit for him. But you're the one who can get the closest. Just remember something, he needs to be looked after this time. Not the other way around. I just wish you knew, I hate having to talk to you like this when you don't know the full picture."

"I'm stuck, Mike. I love Marcel. But just like you, I want to keep my word. And I gave Claire my word I wouldn't leave her like the others."

"And there's your problem again. I don't know, Dade. Maybe in the big scheme of things, this is the best thing. Maybe you and Claire will work out for each other. Maybe Marcel isn't really ready. I don't know, Dade. I don't have any great solution for you."

"Fuck it." Dade said as he threw his hands up. "I don't know what the fuck to do anymore."

"Go with your heart, Dade. That's the cheesiest line but it's so true. That's what we all love about you, Dade. Lately you've been so much in your own little world, it's like you've lost your heart. That thing that makes you Dade. You're just like Storm, Dade. You're one of those people who can sense when something is wrong with someone else. At least you could. Maybe just like Storm you're going through your own little identity crisis. It'd explain a lot of what's gone on lately. But that's my advice, Bro. You're thinking too hard with both Marcel and Storm. Just go with your heart. It's in there somewhere. Don't lock it away by doing things you don't believe in."

"Oh fuck. You just had to say that, didn't you?" Dade said as he shook his head.

"Sorry, Bro. This is where I take my cue. The rest is up to you. You can be happy if you want to be, Dade. It's all up to you now. Storm. Marcel. It's your move. You asked me for my advice and this is about the best advice I could ever give you. Be true."

"That's it?"

"That's it."

"Sounds pretty simple."

"Nothing wrong with the simple things, Dade."

"Now what am I supposed to do when you go?" Dade said with his dimpled smile as he gave Mike a squeeze. "You're so on to it."

"I know. It's kinda hard but I manage." Mike grinned. "Now let's go have some fun. You can deal with all of this tomorrow. Tonight, you're all mine. Let's party."

 

* * * * * *

 

Lucas sat back in a large loafer couch just absorbing the goings on around him. It had been a fairly relaxing and fun night for him. He did miss his baby but even he had to admit, it was nice to have some solo time out. Time to try and forget about all the stresses lately.

He'd spent time with Sarah today. Made her dinner and just hung out, which was a lot of fun for him. He'd spent time with Mike. Probably the only person he hadn't spent much time with is Dade. That was semi intentional on Lucas' part but in a way he was hoping they'd have a chance to speak. Just the two of them.

"Hi."

"Uhh hi." Lucas said in surprise as he was joined by Maya Williams.

"Relax, I'm not going to bite." Maya said with a small laugh. "You having a good time?"

"Yeah, not bad."

"How's everything going with Storm? You two going ok?"

"Yeah. How about you? You found yourself a lucky man yet?"

"Not yet." Maya said as she shook her head. "Dade seems to be doing ok these days. I didn't know he and Claire were an item."

"Yeah ..." Lucas laughed. "Why? You like him?"

"You kidding?" Maya said with a wry smile. "He's sex on legs. What's not to like about him?"

"I suppose so."

"Oh come on, Lucas. It's no secret anymore that you like guys too. Don't tell me you wouldn't jump him if you had a chance?"

"I wouldn't, Dude." Lucas said rather blasť. "It's never crossed my mind once."

"You sure you're bi?"

"Yeah. But there's only one guy for me."

"One guy and lots of girls, huh?" Maya said with a wink. "So it's only Storm who takes your fancy when it comes to guys?"

"Only Storm."

"That's sweet, Lucas. I hope you guys do well. I really do. It must be hard being open the way you are."

"Well ... Storm is the one who had the most to lose. Student Council Prez. Plus he's been here his whole life. He had a reputation to think about. I had to wait till he was ready. Took a while but we got there."

"I really admire that, Lucas." Maya said with a smile. "But I don't think it would be as easy for some of the common folk who were in the same position as you and Storm."

"What do you mean?"

"Look at it this way. You're popular. You're VC on the football team going out with one of Merlow High's kingpins. I mean, it's Storm. He has a bit of a reputation. Plus he's the Regionals Champion. You guys are both really popular. You have a lot of sway and people are less likely to cause you any grief. I think if it were someone else ... say ... Jonny Johanson. He'd be singled out. I'm just saying you guys are fortunate. Merlow is a small town, you guys are popular and well respected. People are less likely to mess with you."

"I guess you have a point there. But I'm not so sure how it's going to be next week at the school ball. We've got people coming in from all over for that. White Swan, Henderson. I'm kinda nervous."

"What does Storm think?"

"He'll go because he knows I want us to. But I'm not sure how keen he actually is. I fully expect people to give us shit next week. But I guess that's just how it's going to be for us. Storm doesn't dwell on anything like that and I try not to either. Besides, if anybody did fuck with us, especially outsiders, I'm pretty sure there'd be a long line of people ready to help us out."

"Count me in. The funny thing is, some of the people who might hassle you here in school will probably be some of the first to jump in if you guys get hassled. Like Marty Lee. I know him and Storm don't really get along that well but I'm pretty sure he'd jump in."

"I think Storm could take care of himself. And I'd be there as well. We'll be ok." Lucas said somewhat anxiously. "We'll just take it as it comes."

"Where is your better half right now? He didn't come with you?"

"He's flown out with Marcel to DSA. Should be back by Monday."

"And what will you do without him?" Maya said with a somewhat cheeky tone.

"Am I that bad?"

"I think it's cute. I watch you two sometimes. In school. The way you are around each other when you think no one's watching. Never thought two guys being together could be so ... I can't think of the word. Well ... just ... right. You both just seem right. I thought it would be kinda icky to think about two guys in a relationship but you guys are just really cute together. The body language. You don't even have to be kissing or holding hands. You just have this way together. You're both really protective. It's really cute. You guys have come a long way." Maya said sincerely. "Just out of interest ... on and off, how long have you guys been together?"

"Oh geez. Well including the time we've been off, it's almost two years."

"Whoa. That long? I should have known. Guess hindsight is 20/20. So are you going to survive the night without him?" Maya asked with a wry smile as she stood up.

"I'm sure I will. But thanks for your support, Dude. Means a lot." Lucas smiled back.

"I'm gonna go mingle. See you later."

"Bye, Maya."

Lucas lay his head back against the top of the couch with a content smile on his face. It was nice to know he had support from unexpected corners. He dreaded the school ball next week but at the same time, he knew they'd be going. Storm would just be spurred on by the idea of possible tension. He wasn't some flag waver but Lucas knew his mate wouldn't let anyone tell him what he could or couldn't do. That's why Lucas knew they'd be going to the ball together.

During his somewhat blissful contemplation, Lucas spied the solitary figure of Marty Lee. He was sitting with his back towards Lucas at Bobby's bar. Lucas sat back and watched Marty Lee for a moment. His demeanor seemed odd today and he was drinking rather freely. Something completely unlike Marty Lee. He was usually so controlled it wasn't funny.

Lucas couldn't help remembering the Marty Lee he knew before Merlow. Back then he was Ashley's little brother and not some terrorizing jerk. The Marty Lee who used to smile a lot more and watched out for his big sister. The Marty Lee that Lucas was almost like a big brother to. It was almost that Marty Lee that Lucas could see right now.

Lucas actually began to feel sorry for him. It was one of the first times he'd seen Marty Lee looking lost since he arrived in Merlow. It compelled Lucas to get up and head towards the complex character. Perhaps see if the Marty Lee he used to know was actually still there.

"You're a hard one to figure out, Marty Lee." Lucas said as he sat down next to him.

Marty Lee acknowledged Lucas' presence with a barely a look. He said nothing and soon turned his attention back to the shot glass in front of him.

"You're only quiet when you feel bad. That's a pretty rare thing for you."

"What is it, Lucas?" Marty Lee said finally.

"Call me stupid but I actually felt sorry for you sitting here by yourself. Kinda lonely when nobody likes you, isn't it?"

"I don't care what people think of me."

"Storm told me what you did for him and Dade."

"How is he?" Marty Lee asked, a slight hint of actual concern in his voice.

"I'm not really sure. You've burnt a lot of people, Marty Lee. It'll take more than one little act to make people think differently about you."

"I don't care. I only have one more school year left in this hole before I get out of this stupid town." Marty Lee scoffed as he drank down another glass.

"That's a long time to go without anyone to talk to."

"What do you care?"

"I'm the only person who knows what you used to be like before you came here. Little brother trying to take care of his big sister. You kinda remind me of Dade like that. Is that why you helped him and Storm?"

"You don't know anything about me."

"You're an angry person, Marty Lee. You've hurt a lot of people. And I'm willing to bet it was you who hurt Brad. If it ever comes out that it was you, a lot of people are going to be after you. Mike and Sarah were the ones who found Brad and both of them want some justice. Mike especially. Storm. Maybe even the police. Just consider yourself lucky that Brad doesn't nark. Bad things happen to bad people, Marty Lee. And right now, Dude. You fit into the bad people category." Lucas said rather grimly before his tone changed to one more feeling and concerned. "It's taken me a long time to ... accept responsibility for a lot of what I've done in the past, Dude. But I blame myself a lot for the way you turned out. It's my fault Ashley got sent away. I know you blame me for that. You tried your hardest to stop your parents from sending her away. You always tried to protect her and in the end, you got split up. That was my fault. I don't think I ever said sorry for what I did to her. And to you."

"Why are you doing this?" Marty Lee asked with a confused look on his face.

"I don't know, Dude."

"Storm and Dade don't realize how lucky they are. I guess ... when I saw them ... it just ... reminded me of Ash and how we used to be. Dade might end up like me if he's not careful. We wouldn't want that, would we?" Marty Lee said with a smirk. "I've done a lot of stupid things, Lucas. Bad things. Mean things. I don't think you can help me. Like you said, bad things happen to bad people. It's only a matter of time before karma comes back to bite me in the ass."

"I understand if you're angry about a lot of things, Marty Lee. I understand if you're still angry about Ash. But don't take it on the world. I'm the one you want to hurt. Not Storm. Not Dade. Not anyone else. At least I hope not."

"Much as I'd like to, Lucas. Ash would kill me." Marty Lee said as he skulled back another shot glass of vodka.

"It's not like you to drink like this."

"It is now."

"What are you going to do now? Now that your conscience seems to have finally caught up with you?"

"Get drunk." Marty Lee said as he polished off another glass.

"You gonna be ok?"

"I'll live."

"What are you going to do now, Marty Lee? You gonna keep this badass gig up or you gonna do something about it?"

"Last I heard, you weren't my dad. You're not my brother. You're not my friend. Why don't you just go away and leave me alone?"

"Ok." Lucas said with a sigh as he stood up, about to leave.

"Hey ..." Marty Lee called with a small turn of his head towards Lucas.

"Yeah?"

"Thanks."

"You're welcome, Dude."

 

* * * * * *

 

"Hey." Claire said with a smile as she popped her head through Sarah's door. "Mind if I come in?"

"Hey, Bud." Sarah replied with a broad grin. "What are you doing here?"

"Just thought I'd come and say hi. I left Dade there with Mike. Maybe they can spend some quality time together or something."

"Have a seat." Sarah said as she motioned for Claire to sit on her bed beside her.

"You weren't sleeping or anything were you?"

"Nah. Just a bit tired. May as well make the most of my free time this week. The ball's coming up and then the wedding the week after. It's gonna be a busy last week for me."

"You just let me know if there's anything I can do to help."

"I will, Claire." Sarah said graciously. "You should come over this week so we can fit you out for a bridesmaid dress. Maybe you could help Marcel out when he gets back. He's doing most of the organizing. That was his wedding gift for us. It was pretty sweet of him. But he's a sweet guy."

"He is." Claire said with a deep sigh. "He sure is. He seems ... different though since he's come back. Not as out there as he used to be. You know what I mean? He seems ... older. That must be it. He's always been loyal to you guys. I've always liked that about him."

"He's definitely loyal. You know, our group has had our little episodes but Marcel, you can always count on him. Take Storm for example. He had some beef with Marcel because he blamed him for hurting Dade. But Storm, just like the rest of us had no idea what Dade was really going through."

"I know. I only just found out too. Poor Dade, I don't know what that must have been like for him. Is that why things are weird between him and Storm?"

"I wouldn't know, Claire. I'm not exactly in tune with everything lately."

"That's understandable." Claire said sympathetically.

"But like Marcel. Even when Storm was giving him the cold shoulder. As he does so often." Sarah said with a roll of her eyes. "Marcel still was there for him. Especially when June died. Marcel was fantastic."

"Do you think he still loves Dade?"

"Umm I'm not really sure it's my place to say. You don't have to worry about Marcel though, Claire. He won't interfere. It's not in his nature. He's too noble for that."

"I know. But ... I really like Dade. I really like being with him. He knows how to make a woman feel ... good. But I can tell he still thinks about Marcel a lot. I guess if there were a chance for them still ... I guess I'm still a sucker for true love. And I kinda think they have something pretty special going on there."

"Marcel has his reasons, Claire. He's been through a lot. Dade doesn't have any idea what he's been through. I wish I could tell him or even you but I won't betray Marcel's confidence."

"I wouldn't want you to."

"This is a hard position for me to be in, Claire. I love both of you. You and Marcel. I don't want either of you being hurt. I think if you knew what Marcel had been through, you'd understand what's going on a lot more."

"Why does this shit always happen to me?" Claire said with water eyes. "Why can't I just get a guy and keep him for crying out loud? It's like there's this shithead up there writing my life and he never gives me a real boyfriend!"

"Claire?" Sarah asked as she gave Claire a puzzled look.

"Oh, sorry." Claire blushed. "Don't mind me."

"I don't know what's going to happen but what I do know is Marcel's not going to hang around much longer if he's not with Dade. There isn't much left holding him to this place. And I don't think he wants to watch the two of you making lovey eyes at each other either."

"Maybe I should do the right thing. If I just maybe ... talked to Marcel. See if I'm imagining things. See if he wants to try with Dade."

"He won't talk to you. Not because he doesn't like you but he just won't. If you and Dade come to any kind of decision, you'll have to do it without his intervention."

"I guess so. Maybe I should be a bad girl and go have one `really' good night with Dade before I see where things are at with Marcel. What do you think?"

Sarah grinned somewhat mischievously at Claire. "I can't really comment. All I will say is Dade knows how to use it. Compared to Storm, he's a devil. He could make a girl scream for him before he even touched her and he could probably make a straight guy think twice if he wanted to. He's that kind of guy. I don't want to say what I think, Claire because Marcel might be angry but damn girl ... he aint no virgin."

"Yeah but I am."

"You're what? But I always thought you and ..."

"Nope. Like I said before, I'm a sucker for that special moment. Only Dade can make me push the timeline forward a bit."

"You two going to the ball next week?"

"So far we are. I guess it depends on how things go with Marcel."

"I know what you're thinking Claire but this is something Dade really has to sort out. I know he won't just leave you. He might be a shit sometimes but he's a loyal one."

"I wish he were mine."

"He is, isn't he?"

"You know what I mean. Maybe I'll go back and talk to him. We only got together because we couldn't have the ones we wanted. But if there's a chance for him to have the one he really wants. Well ... then I guess it'll be time for Claire to do what she does so often." Claire sighed as she stood up. "Sorry to be such a drag on you, Sarah. Can I come back tomorrow? I promise, we'll just do girly stuff this time."

"This is girly stuff. Boy talk is what girls do. Oh and just let me say though ... Dade may be hot, but Mike is still the master." Sarah said with a grin and a wink. "And he's all mine!"

"So he should be. He's a great guy."

"Since we're being pretty frank here. There's one thing I do worry about with Mike."

"What's that?"

"Well ... I don't want to get too personal with you or anything but ..."

"You can tell me anything."

"Some things you just wanna talk to a girl about. And you're about the only real girlfriend I have."

"What is it, Sarah?"

"Well you know with me being sick and since I've come out of hospital ... I can't really ... well ..."

"Oh right. I get it. But I'm sure Mike doesn't care about that." Claire said vehemently. "He's crazy about you. It won't even be a problem for him, I'm positive about that."

"You really think so? I just feel bad because I want to give him everything he wants. And that's part of being in a relationship. I don't want us to go six months down the track and I'm not doing any better and he's not getting any. I mean, come on. He's a guy. Guys have needs too. I just feel bad. And I don't want it to cause any problems down the road."

"Listen, Mike would go the rest of his life celibate if that's what it meant to still be with you. Not that he'll have to because you'll be better in six months, a year at the most. And then you two can have all the time in the world to make love. Trust me, you're just feeling insecure right now but you'll both be fine. Mike is a straight up guy. I've never seen his eyes wander once since I've known him. Has he ever been with another girl like that?"

"No. Just me."

"Exactly. And look at him, he's the captain of the team for crying out loud. He's cute, buff, strong, handsome, sweet, caring, sensitive. He's everything. If he wanted a girl, he'd have them. But he wants you. He's always wanted you. Just try not to worry. Everything will be ok. He's with you for life."

"Thank you, Claire." Sarah sighed with relief, giving her friend a hug and a grateful kiss on the cheek. "I needed that."

"That's what girlfriends are for. But ... before I go ..." Claire said mischievously. "What's he like? Is he ... good?"

"Oh hell yeah. He's the best." Sarah said with a grin. "Not that any other girl will ever find out because I'm never gonna share him."

"Good." Claire smiled back as she hugged Sarah again. "Love you. See you tomorrow ok?"

"Will do, Claire. Thank you."

"Anytime."

 

* * * * * *

 

Brad's nerves had gone into overdrive by now as he tried as hard as he could to find Josh. Try as he may though, he had no luck. He was starting to get anxious as he hadn't seen Josh for the last twenty minutes. Even out here on the deck he couldn't find Josh. And he'd checked everywhere else. If he didn't find Josh soon, he'd bail and head home. The only other person he'd feel comfortable around was Mike. But Mike was too popular and too busy for Brad to hang around. Especially when everyone knew Mike was leaving soon.

"Well if it isn't our once fearless leader." Scott said as he approached Brad with a menacing grin. "What brings you here, Brad?"

Brad felt his heart beat run away from him as the trio of Anton, Scott and Peter surrounded him. Brad couldn't believe that he had once led this group of bullies. Times had changed a lot since then but these three obviously hadn't.

"What do you want?" Brad asked with an empty defiance.

"What do we want?" Scott asked as he shoved Brad backwards. "What do we want?"

"Please. I don't want any trouble." Brad said barely hiding the fear in his voice.

"You don't belong here, Brad. What are you doing here?"

"I was just about to leave. Just leave me alone."

"Shut up." Scott said as he shoved Brad again, this time so forcefully that Brad fell to the ground.

Any joy that Brad was feeling had fast fled from him. Now all he felt was humiliated. He was fooling himself to think he would actually be accepted here. Maybe that was Josh's plan all along. But surely not. Not Josh. With defeated eyes and a look on his face that expected the beating that would come, Brad struggled to pull himself to his feet with his good arm.

"Go on then." Brad sighed. "Just get it over and done with."

"You are such a loser, Brad. I can't believe we ever hung out with you." Scott said with a scowl.

"Go on, show him what we do to losers!" Peter chirped in.

Brad didn't even flinch when he saw the fist flying at him. It hit the side of his jaw and knocked him off his feet again. This time he didn't even bother trying to get up. He felt so degraded right now. There were so many people around him and not one of them were making an effort to intervene. He knew at that moment that he was the lowest of the low. He didn't even cry. He was beyond it. He just felt ... empty.

"Well, I've seen this before." Said a voice that sounded far too familiar.

"Haha, yeah." Scott said as he kicked Brad hard in the ribs. "We're just showing this loser his place. He has the cheek to come here."

Brad's heart filled with a sense of dread. A beating from Scott was something Brad could handle physically. Even the humiliation of being degraded in front of all these people he could handle. But another assault from Marty Lee was something he definitely couldn't handle. He raised his eyes to see Marty Lee standing over him. He couldn't read the expression on Marty Lee's face but he didn't really care too much anyway. He just waited for it to come again. Wondered what new pain Marty Lee would cause him.

"Hello, Brad." Marty Lee said as he looked down at Brad with a blank expression on his face.

"Please don't hurt me." Brad pleaded softly.

"Did you hear that wimp?" Scott laughed as he grabbed Brad's head by the hair. "Wanna say hello to my fist again?"

Scott sent his fist flying into Brad's head. It never connected. Fast as Scott was, he had nothing on Marty Lee.

"No." Marty Lee said coolly as he held Scott's fist firmly in his hand.

"What the hell is your problem!?" Scott yelled in surprise.

"You don't want to find out." Marty Lee said with the slightest wry smile.

"You should mind your own business." Scott said with an angry scowl as he let Brad go.

"Should I?"

Marty Lee extended his hand down to Brad as Scott and his gang backed off. Laughing and jeering at Brad as they went. Brad took Marty Lee's hand wearily, almost shaking as he touched skin with his tormentor. He stood up wearily, still uncertain of Marty Lee's intentions. Fearful that this may just be another of Marty Lee's games.

Brad's confused eyes stared at Marty Lee, who simply stared blankly back in return. Marty Lee brushed some dust off Brad's shoulder and gave him a once over look. Then without a word, Marty Lee left Brad standing alone again. And just as soon as Marty Lee had left, Josh and Mike showed up through the crowd of onlookers.

"Brad! I'm so sorry. I got pulled away and I couldn't find you. Are you ok?" Josh asked with anxiety as he held Brad's face and checked his jaw over.

"I'm ok."

"You sure, Brad?" Mike asked with concern as he put his hand on Brad's shoulder. "Your arm ok?"

"It's ok, Mike. They just punched me. I'm ok."

Josh's eyes narrowed at hearing Brad's statement. He turned in the direction Scott was walking and charged after him. He was furious with anger. Both at Scott and himself for not being there when he promised Brad he would be.

"Hey!" Josh yelled as he rushed Scott from behind.

He rammed Scott's face first into the wooden fence ahead and spun him around, before he hit him with a lightening haymaker to the gut and a fierce smack to the head. Scott went down before he even knew who had hit him.

"Don't ever touch Brad again!" Josh said as he was about to grab Scott again.

"That's enough, Josh." Mike said with a stern look on his face as he stepped up beside Josh. "Scott, I'm going to ask you something and you'd better be honest with me. Were you the one who attacked Brad at school? The one who broke his wrist?"

"No. But I wish it was me." Scott snickered as he held his stomach and remained slumped against the fence.

"You're a coward, Scott. You make me sick. I'm going to tell Anderson all about your little stunt tonight. You won't be playing next week. You don't deserve to represent Merlow. None of you do." Mike said angrily as his eyes stalked the trio. "And I'll make damn sure you have a hard time getting back in next year too."

"WHAT!? You can't do that!"

"Josh. Go check on Brad. Make sure he's ok. I think you should take him home." Mike said, nodding to Josh to go. "I'll take care of this."

"You sure?" Josh asked wearily.

"Do it. I'll be fine."

Josh ran back up to the deck to Brad but he was nowhere in sight. Josh cursed himself as he searched anxiously for Brad. He ran inside but still couldn't find Brad. He felt so bad for losing Brad the first time. He blamed himself for Brad being bullied.

"Damn it." Josh cursed as he ran out the front of Bobby's house.

He was just about to head back inside when he spotted a lone figure walking down the street. He knew it had to be Brad. He ran out onto the street as fast as his legs would carry him.

"Brad!"

"Go away." Brad yelled back.

"Brad! Wait!" Josh yelled as he ran after Brad.

"Leave me alone." Brad snapped as Josh tried to stop him.

"Brad, just stop a minute. Please!" Josh pleaded as he grabbed onto Brad's shoulder. "I'm sorry."

"You promised you'd look after me. I knew this would happen. You shouldn't have invited me. Just leave me alone." Brad said shrugging Josh off.

"Please, Brad. I'm sorry." Josh said desperately as he struggled to keep Brad from walking away. "I'm sorry, Brad. I'm so sorry."

When Josh finally managed to get Brad to stop, he could see that Brad was crying. That just made Josh feel even worse. He put his hands on Brad's shoulder to try and soothe him but Brad just shrugged him off angrily.

"I hate this! Why won't people just leave me alone? I'm not hurting anyone. I just want to be left alone. Why does everybody hate me so much?" Brad cried in anguish. "It's not fair, Josh. It's not fair."

"I'm sorry, Brad." Josh said as he held Brad's face so he couldn't look away. "Just give me a chance to make it up to you. I won't let anybody touch you again. I promise."

"Why do you bother, Josh? It's never gonna change. It's always going to be like this for me. You're wasting your time." Brad cried with frustration as he held his hand over his face, angry tears streaming down his face. "It's not fair. What do I have to do, Josh? Why do people keep doing this to me? I just wanna be left alone."

"I don't want to leave you alone, Brad. We were having a good time. You were having a good time. It's my fault this happened. I shouldn't have lost sight of you. I'm so sorry."

"Don't be sorry, Josh. I was kidding myself coming to this party with you. I'm never going to fit in. I'll never play again. There'll always be someone who will want to have a go at me. My own brother treats me like I'm some kind of freak. Why wouldn't anyone else? Please, Josh. Just leave me alone."

"I'll make sure it never happens again, Brad. Please believe me."

"You can't protect me every second, Josh."

"I will if I have to."

"Why?"

"Because I want to. Don't give up because of this. Don't be afraid. I promise he'll never touch you again."

"You're gonna beat everyone up who touches me, are you?" Brad asked with an apprehensive tone. "That's a lot of people."

"I can take care of myself. And I can take care of you as well. If you let me."

Brad's tears eased as he thought about what Josh had said. He couldn't believe Josh was so interested in making sure he was ok. It actually surprised him to think anyone would really give a damn. He still hadn't figured out why Marty Lee had helped him either. He didn't think Scott and his thugs would appreciate his intervening.

But still here was Josh. Waiting for an answer. He didn't take his eyes off Brad the whole time he waited. He just stood there patiently but anxiously waiting for some kind of response.

"Tell me why you're doing this again?" Brad spoke finally.

"Because I want to. And a long time ago somebody did this for me. Now it's time for me to do it for someone else. And I can't think of anyone else better than you, Brad."

"Ok. But no more parties for a while. Not for me. No matter what people think, I do have some pride. And I don't like being humiliated like that in front of everyone."

"I swear to you, Brad. If I have to follow you around school, I'll make sure nobody ever touches you again."

"Ok, Josh." Brad said with a feigned smile as he turned to continue his walk home. "Ok."

 

* * * * * *

 

"Carl, you are the man. Everybody loves you." Carl said to himself as he stumbled along Bobby's driveway. "Even though you have no girl and hardly anybody hangs out with you."

Carl shook his head, knowing he'd had way too much to drink. He hoped his taxi was waiting for him because he didn't think he'd last much longer. He wasn't really paying much attention to where he was stepping as he walked along the drive. So he wasn't really surprised when he tripped over something he hadn't seen.

"Great one, Doofus." Carl moaned as he turned to see what he'd stumbled over.

He just about screamed when he saw the object of his clumsiness. His heart began to beat and suddenly he felt as sober as he ever had in his life. In two seconds, his wits seemed to come back to him as he realized that he'd tripped over a person lying face down on the driveway.

"Hey? You ok?" Carl asked as he bent down to see who the drunken bum was.

It was then that he noticed the smatters of blood on the drive next to the body. He could see the broken shards of glass from the bottle that had obviously been smashed over the person's head from behind. Instinctively he flipped the person over and almost did a double take when he realized who it was. Marty Lee.

"Marty Lee? Don't freak me here, Man!" Carl yelled as he tried to get Marty Lee awake. "Shit. You don't need this shit, Carl. Come on, get it together."

"Somebody help me here!" Carl screamed out when he realized Marty Lee wasn't stirring at all.

Carl tried not to let his fears run away with him. He'd seen a lot of fights, a lot of injuries, on the field and off the field. Usually at parties involving alcohol. But still, the fact Marty Lee didn't stir at all began to scare Carl more than he'd like.

"Somebody get help! Hurry!" Carl screamed as he pulled out his cellphone and dialed in emergency services. "Somebody help us!"

 

* * * * * *

To Be Continued - SF35: Running on Empty

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